Importance: Health departments can be grouped together based on sociodemographic characteristics of the population served. Comparisons within these groups can then help with monitoring and improving the health of their populations. Objective: To compare county-level percentile rankings on outcomes of smoking, motor vehicle crash deaths, and obesity within sociodemographic peer clusters vs nationwide rankings. Design, Setting, and Participants: This cross-sectional, population-based study of demographic and health data from the 2014 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and the 2016 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County Health Rankings data set was conducted at 3139 of 3143 US counties and county-equivalents. Four locations were excluded due to incomplete data. Data analysis was conducted between January and August 2017. Exposures: Random forest algorithms were used to identify sociodemographic characteristics most associated with the outcomes of interest. These characteristics were race and ethnicity, educational attainment, age, marital status, employment status, sex, and health insurance status. k-means clustering was used to cluster counties based on these sociodemographic characteristics and the percentage of the county classified as rural. Main Outcomes and Measures: County-level smoking prevalence, motor vehicle crash death rate, and obesity prevalence. County percentile rankings on the outcomes of interest were compared in the national context and the within-cluster context. Results: A total of 318 856 967 individuals (mean [SD] individuals per county, 101 579.2 [326 315]; 161 911 910 women [50.8%]) were represented by the 3139 counties used in this analysis. Eight distinct sociodemographic clusters throughout the United States were found. Cluster-specific percentile rankings for both smoking prevalence and motor vehicle crash death rates improved more than 70 percentile points for several counties in the rural, American Indian cluster compared with the nationwide percentiles. Conversely, the young, urban, middle to high socioeconomic status cluster included counties with cluster-specific percentile rankings that declined by 60 percentile points or more compared with the nationwide rankings for all 3 outcomes of interest. Conclusions and Relevance: Comparing county health outcomes on a nationwide or statewide basis fails to adequately account for sociodemographic context. Clustering counties by sociodemographic factors related to the outcome of interest allows a better understanding of other factors that may be shaping the prevalence of health outcomes. These groupings may also aid learning exchange.
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